Random Film of the Week: The Big Heat

(thanks, MJmichand!)

The Big Heat MPSergeant Dave Bannion has absolutely ZERO luck with attractive women in Fritz Lang’s absolute classic 1953 noir The Big Heat. Granted, our initially 100% by-the-book cop (ably portrayed by Glenn Ford) IS a married man with a young daughter, so he doesn’t need to be around the ladies he ends up getting into trouble at all. Unfortunately, in one way or another they’re part of the case he’s working on, so he’s like a black cat in a suit here. Nearly every lady he comes across in this film goes through some sort of hell when and after he’s around that makes him some sort of magnet for bad luck and worse outcomes.

It’s a wonder he makes it through the film in one piece at all despite the efforts of some bad men to keep him off their cases and yes, far away from those doomed dames. For its time, the amount of violence and even some language was probably considered shocking by some viewers, and in at least one respect the film still packs a wallop. That wallop being Gloria Grahame’s portrayal of Debby Marsh, girlfriend of Lee Marvin’s overly brutal gangster-type, Vince Stone. But Stone is the least of Bannion’s problems when he investigates the suicide of a fellow police officer and gets wrapped up in some other things a wee bit over his head…

Bannion’s good cop routine gets him nowhere and when his lovely wife (Jocelyn Brando – yep, Marlon’s sister) is taken out of the picture, he goes from mild-mannered to rage-fueled vengeance machine with a purpose. Granted, he finds himself up against some formidable odds when it turns out Vince Stone is a major pain but a minor worry in terms of Bannion’s cop career. But with a full-on mad face and fast fists (Lang stages a great punch on one shot that sends one character flying back against a wall) plus his trusty pistol, this is one policeman doing the work of a few to bust his case wide open.

As noted, most of the ladies in this one get the short end of the stick in terms of how they’re treated by the men. Stone’s ferocity come out in full force in the infamous scene where he interrogates poor Debby about her being seen with Bannion before scalding one side of her face with some hot coffee. The mutilated Miss Marsh later becomes an angel of vengeance herself, shooting another character to death and going after Stone in the film’s climactic finale. Of course, by then Bannion is hot on her trail and you’ll need to see what happens in all that mess because I’m not saying a thing.

This is one of those late noirs where everything clicks thanks to a great director and crew doing their thing, great actors chewing on any scenery they can get their teeth around, some great writing (the language here is packed full of dynamite lines) and even the music working as it should. Speaking of music, I’m not sure if ex-Wall of Voodoo front man Stan Ridgway was inspired by this and other film noir when he wrote songs from his album The Big Heat, but I wouldn’t be surprised in this film wasn’t a key inspiration for the title track and perhaps the underrated single Drive, She Said from that same LP.  Or maybe I;m reading too much into things (again). Anyway, go see this if you haven’t yet. If you don’t catch it on TCM when it pops up from time to time, feel free to click away on that video above and see a pretty fantastic little film…


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